The Line Shack Trip (by Rona)

Summary: Based on a drabble by Lillian, here is my idea of why they were at that line shack.

Rated: T
Word Count: 5960


 

From the moment he opened his eyes that morning, Joe Cartwright knew that he wasn’t feeling well. It wasn’t anything specific. He just felt out of sorts. His limbs felt heavy as he dressed and his head wasn’t as clear as usual, even allowing for his normal early morning lassitude. Joe peered at himself in the mirror on his dresser, but he looked much the same as usual.

Unsurprisingly, he was last to the table. He usually was. However, he usually ate his breakfast with something approaching enthusiasm, unless he had been out late the night before. But no one noticed as he picked at his food, leaving the majority of it still on the plate.

“We’ve got to get the line shacks re-supplied,” Ben Cartwright, Joe’s father was saying. “It looks as though it might be an early winter this year. So the sooner you and Joe head out there, the sooner you’ll be back, Adam, and I can rest easily, knowing that we’re prepared.”

“We’re ready,” Adam replied. “The supplies are just waiting to be loaded onto the pack horse, and we’ll be off.” He glanced at Joe, who nodded silently. “”We can leave whenever you’re ready, Joe.”

“I’m ready now,” Joe said, hoarsely. The last thing he wanted to do was go on a long trip with Adam into the far reaches of the ranch, but they were short handed at the moment, as Hoss, the middle brother, had broken his arm in a bad fall the previous week. He was still limping around, and Joe knew they couldn’t spare anyone else. Supplying the line shacks was a two man job, because of the distances involved. Ben didn’t like to send anyone out that far alone, just in case, especially when the two men concerned were his sons, and even more especially when one of his sons had just had an accident. From somewhere, Joe summoned a convincing smile for his father, and buckling on his gun belt, followed Adam outside.

The horses were soon ready, and there was a last round of farewells as they mounted up and rode out, Adam leading the packhorse. Ben watched them out of sight, and then went back inside, rubbing his hands briskly together. “Its quite cold out there,” he commented to Hoss, who was sitting by the fire. “Did you think Little Joe looked all right? He was very quiet this morning.”

“Perhaps he had a late night,” Hoss commented. “But he ain’t never very chatty in the mornin’, Pa.”

“Yes, I guess that’s true,” Ben commented. He smiled. “Is there anything I can get for you before I settle down to the books?”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Hoss said.

“Pity,” Ben said, lightly. “Then I’d be able to put off the bookwork for a few more minutes.” He grinned at Hoss before heading off to the study.

*****

The cold air intensified as they climbed higher into the foothills of the Sierras. Joe struggled to keep down the cough he could feel growing in his chest. It finally burst forth, and Adam shot him a look. “All right?” he asked, and Joe simply nodded. Shrugging, Adam faced front again and kept going.

They broke for lunch about noon, and Joe eyed the thick sandwich as though it would bite him. He really wasn’t hungry, but he knew if he didn’t eat, he’d never hear the end of it. He took a bite and chewed mechanically. It tasted odd. After he swallowed, Joe coughed again. It seemed to go on and on, and by the time he caught his breath, Joe was feeling hot. He gulped desperately at his coffee, but that didn’t seem to help.

“Are you coming down with a cold?” Adam asked, and he didn’t sound happy about it.

“I think I must be,” Joe replied, wiping a hand across his face. He felt dreadful. His head seemed stuffed with cotton, and he was suddenly very hot. He unbuttoned his big sheepskin coat, ignoring the frown Adam sent in his direction. “I’ll try not to give it to you, big brother,” he said, jokingly.

“You should’ve said something before we left,” chided Adam. “Really, Joe, this trip is hard enough when you’re feeling all right.”

“It’s just a cold, and I’m fine,” Joe snapped. “And besides, there wasn’t anyone else to come, you know that!”

“Well, I’m not babying you the way Pa does,” Adam warned him. “You’ll pull your weight on this trip, brother.”

Giving Adam a hard look, Joe got to his feet. His head was momentarily light, but he ignored the feeling. “I pull my weight round here,” he said, quietly. “And don’t worry, I don’t expect you to ‘baby’ me, as you so charmingly put it.” He walked away, and began to pack up the things they’d used at lunch.

Frowning, Adam looked at Joe’s back, but said nothing. He felt a sudden pang of unease. He hoped it was just a cold, for they were heading to the most isolated areas of the ranch, and there was no way to bring a doctor out there if it should prove to be more serious.

*****

By late afternoon, the first of the line shacks was re-supplied, and the brothers bedded down there for the night. By then, Joe was coughing relentlessly. The altitude wasn’t helping him, nor was the sudden rush of cold air sweeping down from the mountains. There was a scent of snow on the air.

As darkness fell, the first flakes of snow swirled down from the sky. Like a child, Joe couldn’t stay indoors when there was snow falling, and Adam looked up from washing the dishes to find Joe standing outside, coatless, gazing upwards with a delighted smile on his face.

“What are you playing at, Joe?” Adam demanded, grabbing his youngest brother by the arm and dragging him back inside. “We’ve just got this place warm!” He shook Joe slightly. “You’re wet!”

“I’m all right,” protested Joe, but his claim might have impressed Adam more if he hadn’t immediately begun to cough. “I love snow.”

“I know,” responded Adam, his face softening. The first snow of the season had a certain charm, but Joe’s delight always made them appreciate it more. However, by the end of winter, they had all seen enough snow to keep them happy for a long time. “Let’s get to bed,” he said. “We’ve got a long day tomorrow.”

*****

“That’s cold rain,” Ben said, coming into the house from doing barn chores. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was snowing higher up.”

“D’you think its lyin’?” Hoss asked, concerned. “It won’t be good fer Adam an’ Joe if’n it does.”

“I doubt if it’s cold enough for it to lie yet, son,” Ben reassured him. “Your brothers might find a dusting by morning, but it won’t hold them up.”

Joining Ben at the table, Hoss was unusually down. When Ben gently probed, Hoss said, “I feel real bad about not bein’ able to help ya, Pa. It ain’t right that you’ve got to do my chores, just ‘cos I was clumsy.”

“You do your share, Hoss,” Ben said, touched by this declaration of love. “And it doesn’t hurt me to take on some of the physical labor every now and then. It makes a change from those books,” he added, and Hoss smiled. “What matters most to me is that you’re going to be all right,” he went on. “Not if you can do chores round here.”

Grinning, Hoss piled some food onto his plate, and passed it over to Ben to get his meat cut. Ben eyed him. “But this doesn’t mean I’m not expecting you back at work when you’re better,” he added. “I don’t intend to do your chores forever.”

“Dadburnit, Pa,” Hoss grumbled. “I was lookin’ forward to retirin’.”

“Retiring, indeed,” scolded Ben, but he couldn’t hide the smile and he and Hoss exchanged glances, and burst out laughing.

*****

True to Ben’s prediction, Adam and Joe woke to a sugarcoated world that morning. Adam set about making breakfast without comment, and Joe dragged himself from his sleeping roll with extreme reluctance. He had coughed all night, and his throat felt red and raw. Rubbing his face, Joe reflected that he ached all over, as though he had spent the previous day busting broncs.

“How do you feel this morning?” Adam asked, eyeing Joe as he picked at the bacon on his tin plate. “Are you well enough to go on, or should you go home?”

“I’m fine,” Joe answered. “Besides, Pa wants the line shacks stocked and ready, and he likes two people to do it.”

“He doesn’t want you up here if you’re not well,” Adam pointed out. “Joe, I’m serious, I don’t mind if you turn back.”

“Can’t wait to get rid of me, huh?” Joe joked, but his line was spoiled by the cough that swept over him. When he finally got his breath back, his face was flushed, and his eyes glazed from the effort.

“Look, kid, you’re sick, and I don’t think it’s good for you to go on,” Adam said, urgently.

Glaring at Adam, Joe straightened. “I’m not a kid!” he snapped, his eyes flashing from hazel to green. “I’m fine, all right? And I’m not going home!”

“Fine!” Adam snapped back. He finished eating and began to get ready to go. Joe did the same. The silence between the brothers was almost suffocating.

*****

The route the brothers were traveling hadn’t been chosen at random. They were working in a large sweep, so that they reached the farthest out point late on the second day, and then headed back towards home. By noon, they had stocked the second shack, and were heading for the third, and furthest away, one. Adam estimated they would get there a little after dusk.

Shooting a glance at Joe, Adam frowned sharply. Joe looked dreadful. He was grey, and his eyes seemed to be glazed. He coughed almost non-stop. Adam hadn’t been able to get two words out of him all day, and had put it down to him sulking after their altercation that morning, but now he was wondering if it was something else.

Catching Adam looking at him, Joe made an effort to straighten up slightly. It worried him that it was an effort. Everything was an effort. His chest muscles hurt from the endless coughing, and he was hot and cold by turn. He didn’t make the mistake of trying to smile at his brother. Instead, he kept his gaze averted. He would far rather that Adam thought he was sulking than sick.

It seemed to Joe to take forever, to reach the next line shack. He was leading the packhorse, which seemed more recalcitrant than usual. He contemplated asking Adam to take the horse, but stubborn pride prevented him. However, he was sufficiently aware of his surroundings to notice Adam pulling Sport to a sudden halt.

“What is it?” he asked, maneuvering Cochise up to Sport’s side. He peered through bleary eyes at the line shack, which had hove into view seconds before, and saw smoke coming from the chimney.

“It could be trouble,” Adam responded. “Let’s leave the horses here, and go on foot. We don’t want to get caught unawares.”

Nodding his understanding, Joe slid from Cochise, and stood for a moment, getting his balance. His legs felt like rubber, and trembled beneath him. He drew his gun with a shaking hand, and wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the other. Catching Adam looking at him, he nodded, and pulled his bandanna from round his neck, holding it up to his mouth to muffle any coughing. Adam nodded approval.

They split up, and made their way from tree to bush, always keeping the shack and each other in sight. There was no challenge from the shack, and Adam finally reached the porch. He stepped up onto it and beckoned to Joe. He opened the door, his gun drawn, and looked in.

An old man, dressed in dirty clothes was sitting in a rickety chair by the table. He looked startled, as Adam burst in. “Don’t shoot,” he whined, in a thin voice. “I ain’t armed.”

“What are you doing here?” Adam asked, lowering his gun slightly, but still holding it ready.

“I’m just livin’ here,” he said. “Nobody lives here, ‘cept me.”

“This shack belongs to my father, Ben Cartwright,” Adam said. “You can’t just live here, old man.” His eye fell on the half-used bag of flour from the stores. Although Ben didn’t object to anyone using the shacks to shelter in, he wasn’t keeping them supplied for tramps to live at their leisure. “Who did you think provided the food?” he asked, angrily.

“I ain’t leavin’!” the old man stated.

“Not tonight, no,” Adam agreed. “But come morning, you are leaving.” He stepped inside the shack, and put his gun away. “Joe, go and get the horses, will you?”

Putting his gun away, Joe wiped sweat from his forehead as he stumbled back to the horses. He didn’t know when he’d last felt as bad, and decided that he didn’t really want to remember. It wasn’t going to be any comfort.

By the time he got the horses down to the lean-to by the shack, Joe was trembling uncontrollably. He tended to the horses mechanically, and was shaken to find himself almost floored by a loving nudge from Cochise. The saddles seemed to each weigh ten tons, and the sawhorse from the pack animal almost defeated him. He had to rest frequently. He slung the saddlebags over his shoulders, and staggered into the shack.

Inside the hut, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Adam and the tramp were involved in an almighty row. Joe dropped the bags just inside the door, and sank into the nearest chair. He was drained and knew he couldn’t do another thing. He coughed and coughed, and was barely aware of when the tramp slammed out of the shack muttering threateningly at them both.

After a time, Joe became aware that Adam was talking to him. “What?” he said, lifting his head, and trying to concentrate. He blinked sweat out of his eyes.

“Joe, you’re not well,” Adam said, putting his hand on Joe’s head. His brother was burning up. “Come on, let’s get you into bed.”

“I’m all right,” Joe protested, automatically, but when Adam pulled him to his feet, his knees buckled, and he was more than glad when Adam put a strong arm under his, and helped him to lie down. The world swam away on a warm haze, and Joe let go gladly.

*****

All through the night, Joe’s fever went up. Adam slept, on and off, on the other bunk, but he roused frequently to bathe Joe’s head. He was concerned. Joe’s temperature was sky high, and he coughed more and more, struggling to catch his breath. At times, his lips were quite blue, and Adam was deeply concerned. He was sure Joe had the flu.

The flu had been doing the rounds in the district, but so far, the Ponderosa had managed to stay clear of it. However, they were all aware that this was a virulent strain of the disease, and there had been a number of deaths. There was no telling whom Joe had caught it from. It could be almost anyone in Virginia City or the surrounding area.

With the dawn came some more snow. Once again, it was light and didn’t lie for long, but it made Adam even more concerned than he had been. It also pushed him into a decision that he had been thinking about all night. He had to get Joe home, sick as he was, because the last thing they needed was to be caught in a snowstorm, or – worse – for Adam to catch the flu, too.

It was clear that Joe would be unable to ride. His temperature was soaring and his teeth chattered with chills one minute, and he threw off the covers the next. Adam bathed Joe’s head again, and managed to coax him into drinking a little water. Joe’s eyes opened, and he peered at Adam.

“Sorry,” he panted. “Sorry I got sick.” He groaned as another chill shook him. Then he was lost in a cough, and by the time it eased, his eyes were glazed, and he was beyond talking.

“Joe, I’m going to get you home,” Adam assured him. “I’ll make a travois, and get you back before dark. You just rest here, all right?” He collected a bare nod, and rose. He would need to get a move on, but he was sure they could get home before dark if he pushed.

Shrugging on his big coat, Adam glanced back at Joe before he went out of the door. Joe looked terrible and Adam felt a pang of concern. He couldn’t afford to hang around. He left, shutting the door carefully behind him, and retrieved the big axe from his pack. On leaving the lean-to, he paused, and decided he might as well get the horses ready, as that would be one less job. Quickly, he saddled them, and led them out front. The packhorse he tethered near the trees, so it could graze, and he took Cochise and Sport with him. He might as well get the travois attached to Cochise’s saddle right away. That would save another few minutes.

*****

Watching as Adam left, the tramp he’d evicted the previous night crept out from the trees. He had been living in the line shack on and off for months, and was furious that he’d been discovered. He knew that, now he’d been discovered, he wouldn’t be able to go on living there, even intermittently. Bitter at the knowledge, he decided that if he couldn’t live there, then neither could anyone else. He’d scorned Adam’s offer of a job, and would just drift on to someplace else. But he was determined to make sure no one else lived there.

It only took a matter of minutes for him to find light a match and stuff a burning brand under the shack. The shack was old, and the wood fairly dry. In a matter of a few minutes, it was smoldering away. Satisfied, the tramp left, muttering under his breath.

Inside the shack, Joe slept on, oblivious to the outside world.

*****

Making a travois didn’t take Adam all that long. He’d done it many times, and practice made perfect. He knew that Joe wouldn’t be very comfortable, but he had no alternative. Satisfied with his work, he headed back to the shack.

He smelt the smoke first. Eyes widening, Adam hurried the horses, until he arrived back at the clearing where the shack stood. He slid from Sport’s back, barely able to comprehend what he was seeing.

He stood transfixed. His legs were like leaden weights cemented firmly to the ground. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. His eyes were riveted at the horror bursting forth before him.

The rickety line-shack was a blazing inferno and his baby brother was helplessly trapped inside. He heard the shrieks of terror and pain and still he couldn’t move.

The wrenching pleas for help pierced his soul. He was numb. Suddenly, he let forth a gut-wrenching scream. “I’m coming Little Buddy. Hold on, big brother is coming.” And without warning Adam ran straight into the flames. Joe needed him again.

The shack was well ablaze, but Adam didn’t hesitate. He dashed through the door, and spotted Joe lying on the floor, tangled in the blankets from the cot. Joe was frantically beating his left arm on the ground, and Adam realized that his brother’s sleeve was on fire. He rushed over, just as Joe managed to beat out the flames. Joe seemed unaware of the cries he was emitting, and Adam guessed that this must all seemed to be part of his fever-induced nightmare.

There was no time for further speculation. They had to get out of there. Joe was coughing, and as Adam stooped to pick up his brother, he felt the smoke tickling his chest. There was no time to lose! Adam straightened, surprised that his slightly built brother was so heavy. He staggered back to the door, coughing furiously, terrified lest his grip on Joe, still bundled in the blankets, should slip.

The smoke was billowing around Adam. There was an ominous roaring sound, and he looked up to see the roof burst into flames. The sudden heat made him duck, almost dropping his precious burden. He hurried his steps more, and finally found the door.

It wasn’t a moment too soon. The roof caved in as he reached the door, and a piece of the burning timber struck Adam on the back. He threw himself out of the shack, down the steps and onto the ground. The blankets were smoldering, as was his shirt, and Adam rolled both himself and his unconscious brother over and over, until the flames had died, and they were safe.

For several minutes, Adam just lay on the cold ground, allowing things to settle. He coughed several times, and noticed that little bits of soot were expelled from his lungs. His back throbbed with intense pain, and Adam was just as glad he couldn’t see it. There was no need to see how badly he was burned.

He had no idea how long he lay there, but it was the return of the snow that made him move. He got to his feet, and looked at Joe. His brother was still unconscious, and hadn’t moved apart from to cough violently.

Wearily, Adam looked for the horses. The packhorse had run off, but Sport and Cochise were still standing close to where he had left them. Thankful for that at least, Adam again picked up Joe, biting back a cry at the pain that shot across his back. He staggered over to the horses, and laid Joe carefully on the travois. Once he was settled, Adam took a closer look, and saw that Joe’s arm was burned.

They had all been taught what to do for burns, and Adam quickly ripped some blanket and soaked it in the horse trough, wrapping the sodden wool round Joe’s arm. His brother mumbled and tossed his head, but didn’t rouse. The shack had consumed itself, and the flames had died down. Adam saw that there wasn’t any danger to the trees. He wouldn’t have been able to deal with that, too.

Wondering how treat himself, an idea occurred to Adam. He stripped off his sheepskin coat, trying not to look at the black burn mark on the back, and quickly shrugged out of his shirt. He soaked the garment in the icy water of the trough, then put it on, with his coat over the top. It wasn’t an ideal solution, but after examining the shirt, Adam realized that his big coat had saved him from the worst of it. The wetness of the shirt would prevent blisters forming, assuming they hadn’t already formed, and his coat would, he hoped, save him from getting a chill.

The snow was falling relentlessly as the little cavalcade began the slow trek homewards.

*****

“I don’t like the look of the weather, Pa,” Hoss said, coming in from the yard. “It looks like its snowing real hard up in the mountains.”

Lifting his head from the books, Ben frowned. He had a lot of respect for Hoss’ weather sense. “You think it’s as bad as that?” he asked.

“It’s got real cold,” Hoss said, looking concerned. “It’ll be worse up there, I reckon.”

Rising, Ben went outside to survey the weather prospects for himself. A glance told him that Hoss was right. It was snowing pretty hard up in the mountains. He only hoped that Adam and Joe would have the sense to stay where they were until it stopped. The thought had barely crossed his mind before he mentally chided himself. Joe and Adam weren’t children, and they had enough sense to take shelter when it snowed. “Well, it won’t lie long this early in the season,” Ben said, optimistically. “They might get held up for a day or so, but they have plenty of supplies!”

“Reckon they have at that,” Hoss agreed, sounding relieved. But as he resumed his seat by the fire, easing his broken arm in its sling, Hoss didn’t feel relieved. In fact, he felt more concerned than ever. He wondered why. He knew as well as Ben that his brothers wouldn’t take unnecessary chances with the weather, so why did he feel that way?

He didn’t have an answer.

*****

At first, the snow hadn’t slowed them down any, but as it began to get thicker, and lie, Adam noticed that their pace had slowed. Joe had remained in some sort of unrousable stupor throughout. Whenever he stopped to rest – which was more often than he realized – Adam gave Joe some water, which his brother took willingly. But he didn’t open his eyes, and he didn’t respond to Adam’s voice. Adam felt strangely detached from Joe’s predicament, not realizing that he too was beginning to run a temperature.

They plodded on resolutely, and Adam figured that they would be unlikely to reach home before dark. He thought vaguely about heading to another line shack, but he couldn’t make a decision to change direction, and so they headed on back home.

At one point, Adam woke as he was sliding from the saddle. He caught himself before he made the painful crash to the ground, and shook his head, trying to clear away the lethargy. He looked around, and saw that Sport was still heading for home. He gave the horse a grateful pat, and tried to pick the pace up a bit. But they were heading directly into the wind now, and the horse balked slightly.

Before long, Adam was caked in wet snow. He gritted his teeth and went on. The only consolation he had was that the snow was keeping him awake. And with the change of direction, he guessed that less snow was landing on Joe, but he was too scared to stop to see. If he stopped, Adam was scared that he wouldn’t get going again.

*****

It was dark when they trailed wearily into the yard. Both horses had their heads down, and Adam was barley conscious. He was shivering uncontrollably, and was soaked. He lifted his head when he realized that Sport had stopped, and looked around.

“Pa.” His voice barely reached Sport’s flickering ears. The tired horse was wondering why his master wasn’t getting down. After a moment, Adam realized that his voice wasn’t carrying, and tried to dismount. He was stiff and cold, and fell to the ground.

That was when he found his voice. As he landed heavily on his left side, his back, which had been relatively quiet, woke into a burst of agony, and Adam let out a cry of pain. Both horses startled, and Cochise let out a whinny.

The door to the house opened, and Ben peered out into the falling snow. He recognized the horses at once, and after a second, saw the huddled figure on the ground. Rushing out, heedless of the fact he hadn’t a coat on, Ben knelt by Adam. He was horrified by what he saw, for Adam was coated in wet snow, had icicles hanging from the edges of his coat, and was streaked black with soot.

“Come on, Adam,” Ben said, pulling Adam to his feet, and swinging an arm over his shoulders. “Let’s get you inside.” At the same time, he was wondering where Joe was.

“Joe,” Adam slurred. “Travois, Pa.”

Puzzled, shooting a glance over his shoulder, Ben belatedly became aware of the travois, with an unmoving figure on it. Fear shot through his gut. “Come on, Adam,” Ben repeated. “I’ve got to get you inside so I can help Joe.”

Hoss was waiting at the door, and looped his good arm round Adam’s waist, and helped Ben take him over to the fire. “See if you can get his coat off,” Ben said. He turned round and dashed back into the storm.

As he gathered Joe into his arms, the youth mumbled. Turning, Ben almost collided with Hop Sing, who was heading over to lead the horses inside. “Water on to boil,” he said, as he passed, and Ben simply nodded. He hurried back to the house, and as he did so, was rewarded by Joe groaning. At least he was alive!

*****

The next few hours were chaos at the Ponderosa. A hand was dispatched through the snow to bring the doctor out. Ben somehow got both Joe and Adam into bed, and stripped off their sopping clothes with Hoss’ help. He found more evidence of a fire with each layer of clothing he stripped away. Joe’s arm was wrapped in a strip of blanket that had stuck fast, and Ben had to soak it to get it free. The arm underneath was remarkably unblistered, but had clearly been burned. Adam’s back was in much the same state. Both were running fevers, and it was apparent that Joe was seriously ill from something other than the fire. Ben did his best to make both sons comfortable while they waited for the doctor.

It was a long wait. The snow grew worse, and it was close to midnight before Paul Martin reached the ranch. By then, Joe was conscious, although not really aware of his surroundings. His temperature was still sky high, and he coughed continuously. Adam had drifted in and out of sleep, obviously finding his back painful.

“Pa,” Adam said, as Paul came in. “Must tell you.”

“No, Adam, it doesn’t matter now,” Ben tried to soothe him.

“The line shack went on fire,” Adam persisted. “Joe was in it. I got him out, Pa. But he was hurt.”

“Looks like you didn’t escape, either,” Paul said, rummaging in his bag for his stethoscope. He listened closely to Adam’s chest, and nodded. Next, he examined Adam’s back, and dressed it carefully. Finally, he gave him a shot of morphine for the pain, and knew that within a short time, Adam would be safe in the arms of Orpheus.

“Adam will be all right with rest, Ben. His back will be sore for a while, but the burn isn’t bad, and there’s no sign of infection. He’s had a thorough soaking, and is exhausted. Keep an eye on him. I think he’s got a bit of a chill, but his chest sounds fine right now.” Paul patted his friend on the back. “Let’s have a look at Joe.”

After examining Joe closely, Paul sat back, looking grave. “Joe’s got the flu,” he said, quietly, and Ben’s heart contracted painfully. He was well aware of the deaths there had been recently from this virus. “And he’s got it badly. His chest is very constricted, and the smoke he inhaled in that fire won’t have helped. I’ll give you something to help, and we can put poultices on his chest, but more than that I can’t do, Ben. I’m sorry.” He cast a glance at his friend, before dressing Joe’s burned arm.

*****

For the next few days, Joe’s temperature raged out of control. The family did what they could to keep him cool, but they were fighting a losing battle. Joe was delirious most of the time, but some of the things he said indicated to Ben that Joe did remember the fire in the shack, despite what Adam had said. Joe grew visibly thinner, but they were unable to get him to take anything apart from water. Paul Martin came when he could, but the weather and the epidemic conspired to keep him away.

“Pa?” Ben looked up as Adam appeared in the doorway to Joe’s room. “Let me sit with him, and you get some sleep.”

“You should be resting,” Ben said, frowning forebodingly. He was dropping with tiredness, but was afraid to leave Joe in case something happened.

“I’m a lot better,” Adam protested. “My back hardly hurts at all. And if you don’t rest, you’ll get sick, too.”

Before Ben could say anything, Joe groaned and flailed his arms violently. He let out a great slur of sound, but none of the words were comprehensible. Ben went to his side, and replaced the cold cloth on his head. “Easy, Joe,” he soothed, but his son didn’t appear to hear him this time. He continued with his agitated movements.

Knowing that there was no chance of him getting his father to rest while Joe was like this, Adam pitched in to lend a hand. It appeared that Joe had reached some sort of crisis. Despite all they could do, his temperature spiked once more.

All of a sudden, Joe sat up, his eyes wide open. “Adam, help me!” he screamed, his voice hoarse from the many days of coughing. “Help me!”

As Ben and Adam both reached for him, Joe let out a piercing scream, and flopped back limply onto the bed. Frantic, Ben groped for his son’s pulse, and for a terrifying instant couldn’t find it. He shot a glance at Adam, who also reached for Joe’s pulse, this time in his throat. He found it there, and it seemed to Adam that it wasn’t as fast as before. He reached to feel Joe’s heart, and as he did so, realized that his younger brother was soaked with sweat.

“He’s still alive,” Adam croaked. “And, Pa, I think his fever has broken. Look how wet he is.”

Swallowing with difficulty, Ben touched Joe’s skin, and realized that Adam was right. His son was soaked, but when he felt Joe’s head, he was definitely cooler. Tears pricked in his eyes, and he felt a lump the size of a fist rise in his throat. Unable to speak, he shot a look at Adam, who read it correctly. Adam nodded, and they shared a slightly watery smile.

As the dawn broke, they knew that Joe was going to live. He had opened his eyes, and smiled at both parent and brother before settling into a peaceful sleep. Neither Ben nor Adam had gone to bed at all, and as Adam rose to look outside, he saw that the snow had finally stopped. He thanked whatever guardian angel had prompted him to bring Joe home that day, for if he had waited, they would’ve been totally cut off because of the inclement weather.

“It’s clearing up,” Adam said, as he resumed his seat by the bed. He looked exhausted, as did Ben, but whenever they glanced at the youth on the bed, they smiled. “Why don’t you get some sleep, Pa?”

“Soon,” Ben agreed, as though they didn’t both know that he was waiting until Joe woke again, just so he could make sure that his youngest son was truly all right. “And you, too, Adam.”

“Me, too, Pa,” Adam agreed.

They were both still sitting there when Joe woke a few hours later.

*****End*****

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